I’m just going to say it: HBO’s Game of Thrones is better than the books it’s based on.
It’s not something I say lightly; in fact, it’s almost totally unprecedented. Who in their right mind would choose a TV show or a film over its literary inspiration?
Well – not totally unprecedented. Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both come to mind. But the list of TV shows is even shorter.
Most of the shortcomings of film and television adaptations, particularly those based on beloved intellectual properties, have to do with the limitations peculiar to the medium. They can’t make space in their limited runtime to do this or that, or their medium won’t permit them to film this one scene in all its grisly or controversial or naked glory (choose one or all three).
As you’d expect, HBO – freed from the petty moralism that restricts all but the most visionary showrunners on regular broadcast networks – can do what they please. They can show you all the boobs, decapitations, and doomed wedding guests that you could hope for, and then some.
So its shortcomings, if you can call them that, don’t come from concessions made in the name of decency. They come from the source material itself.
George R.R. Martin’s fantasy tour-de-force will, when it’s finally completed and we’re all old and grey, will encompass at least seven volumes, several of which approach 1,000 pages in length. That’s a gigantic amount of story to tell.
But so far, and to their credit, GoT showrunners Devid Benioff and D.B. Weiss have proven amazingly up to the task. They know their Westeros lore backward and forward.
That knowledge was put to the test during their very first meeting with Martin. The author asked them who they thought Jon Snow’s mother was – a question that fans of the series are still eagerly awaiting an answer for. We don’t know what they said, but what we do know is that their collaboration with Martin depended on their giving a satisfactory answer. Apparently he liked what they had to say.
It’s that obvious commitment to Martin’s story that has helped the show turn out as brilliantly as it has so far – and, in circling back to my original thesis – has helped it rise above even Martin’s own lofty ambitions.
So why and how is the show better? Very simply, because it’s a more focused, refined, and polished version of the original story.
I don’t mean to take away from Benioff’s and Weiss’ accomplishments – not even a little bit. But when you realize that they have at their disposal exhaustively detailed roadmaps for use in plotting the show, you also realize that they see the bigger picture remarkably clearly; they know which plotlines and character arcs are most important, and they know what they can afford to cut down on, rearrange, omit, combine, or otherwise streamline for the sake of this remarkably fast-paced TV show.
Even more importantly, Game of Thrones succeeds because its writers have allowed even the more minor characters to breathe on their own a bit – in some cases, much more so than in the book. I particularly enjoyed what they did with Tywin Lannister (an imposing presence in the book, but not necessarily someone who we understood terribly well as a human being), Grey Worm (his flirting with Missandei was a revelation; we understood that there’s more to him than just an anonymous grunt), and Brienne of Tarth (who comes to life on screen – thanks in no small part to Gwendoline Christie’s wonderful acting – a great deal more successfully than she does in the book).
The books and the show will always have their “point-of-view” characters, and for better or worse we’re going to watch the majority of the events in Westeros unfold through their eyes. But I’m saying here and now that the show is a great deal more successful in giving us the larger picture – that is, in showing us that even the minor characters are people, too.
Yes, the show has had to make alterations and some omissions along the way. These were the shortcuts that the writers took in order to keep the tensions appropriately high, or to eliminate redundant characters or events. Omissions are always necessary for an adaptation of this scale.
More surprising, then, is the number of occasions where the writers have been able to add scenes that didn’t take place in the books at all: Lord Varys’ long-overdue vengeance against the man that mutilated him, for example, or Tyrion’s symbolism-heavy, eleventh-hour conversation with Jaime about crushing beetles.
These scenes give us insight into these characters’ states of mind in ways that you don’t always get to see on television, or would be difficult to carry over from the books. Martin’s point-of-view characters in the books get to divulge the bulk of their inner thoughts and conflicts to us. What this sometimes means is that when characters gamble with their (or others’) lives in the book, you already know their mind inside and out; their actions make sense.
This is something that’s a great deal harder to do onscreen, and yet the writers have proven themselves exceptionally gifted at giving us scenes that help us understand these people, their struggles, their trials, and their triumphs, all without any voiceover or clumsy exposition.
I’m about to draw this to a close, mostly because if I haven’t convinced you by now, I’m not going to. And that’s fine. I love the books; I think they’re one of the most important bodies of work in modern literature, if not the most important. But when it comes to sheer enjoyment, I have to hand it to the show: it handily rises above its sometimes-difficult, occasionally frustrating source material and has delivered to us one of the very best four-season runs in television history.